Exclusive: U.S. official in July feared HealthCare.gov 'crash'

WASHINGTON Fri Nov 15, 2013 10:50am EST

1 of 2. Deputy Director of the Office of Information Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Henry Chao swears in before testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on 'ObamaCare' implementation on Capitol Hill in Washington, November 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Almost three months before the botched launch of HealthCare.gov, a U.S. health official expressed frustration with a main contractor working on the website, fearing quality assurance issues could "crash the plane at take-off," according to government documents obtained by Reuters.

The documents were released by Republican investigators with the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. Republican lawmakers, who have consistently sought to undermine President Barack Obama's signature health system overhaul, are probing the law's disastrous rollout.

Two series of internal emails in July between officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), including HealthCare.gov project manager Henry Chao, describe struggles with contractors, staff shortages and software problems long before the federal healthcare website crashed on its October 1 launch and threw the rollout of Obamacare into political turmoil.

In a July 16 email sent ahead of a meeting with then-prime contractor CGI Federal, Chao describes the agency's low confidence level in the project work, from constant struggles with releases to changing delivery dates and poor quality assurance on software.

"I just need to feel more confident they are not going to crash the plane at take-off," Chao says in the email, which was among several documents the Republican investigators released.

Officials at CGI Federal, the U.S. subsidiary of Canada's CGI Group Inc, were not immediately available for comment.

In congressional testimony released October 23, CGI Federal blamed early website problems on another contractor's software and also said the federal government was ultimately responsible for the website's performance.

CMS said in a statement about Chao's July 16 email: "This email discusses one small piece of ongoing discussions about managing deliverables and communicating expectations that were on a short timeline to meet October 1st. Management concerns about meeting timelines are expected for any project of this size and scope."

CMS declined to make Chao, the deputy chief information officer at CMS, available to speak directly with Reuters.

President Barack Obama and administration officials have come under fire for launching a malfunctioning website, but it's not clear if officials knew the extent of the site's problems or when they knew.

A day after writing the email about CGI, Chao assured a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that HealthCare.gov would be ready on time.

It is not known whether Chao learned new information to change his assessment in the intervening hours.

On July 20, he distributed a video link to the testimony via email and urged CMS staff to make good on the pledge to lawmakers.

"I wanted to share this with you so you can see and hear that both Marilyn and I under oath stated we are going to make October 1," Chao wrote, referring to CMS chief Marilyn Tavenner.

"I would like you (to) put yourself in my shoes standing before Congress, which in essence is standing before the American public, and know that you speak the tongue of not necessarily just past truths but the truth that you will make happen."

But HealthCare.gov, the federal government's health insurance marketplace portal for millions of uninsured people in 36 states, crashed shortly after its launch and has been plagued by technical problems even since.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Karey Van Hall and Lisa Shumaker)

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Comments (13)
l3lessed wrote:
Of course, they won’t tell you that staff shortage, budget issues, and thus contractor issues are the result of the GOP cutting funding from the law in the sequester, while simultaneously not letting anyone go back to change the law to pre-empt a number of issues they had via filibustering any legislative changes. The GOP have muddied the water so much with their 5 year streak of continual sabotage and obstruction, I can’t tell what is truly incompetence on the admins part and what is just GOP home wrecking. If you don’t like a law, let it pass and stand or fall on its own merits. I’m tired of these political games and gotcha games.

Nov 15, 2013 2:21am EST  --  Report as abuse
artvet2 wrote:
As an American and as an ex-government program manager, I am disgusted and angry at the excuses these federal employees – no, these federal managers and supervisors, including the President of the United States – continue to offer as reasons for not doing their job! What kind of excuse is it for the upper level supervisors and managers to say “I didn’t know, or I had no idea”? They are PAID to know, to have the idea! Fire them, and look for others more competent and interested in GETTING THE JOB DONE – which used to be an American mantra!

Nov 15, 2013 6:08am EST  --  Report as abuse
rustic36 wrote:
I have a really great Idea- – lets try and blame this MESS on the ”GOP ”- – - -continual sabotage, obstruction ,Sequester, yadda yadda- – ”ARE YOU SERIOUS”- – or soooo stupid- – that is the BEST you can do???? How Pathetic- – how BLIND to the truth! Not even worth arguing with! ! !

Nov 15, 2013 7:01am EST  --  Report as abuse
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